Tag: polling

Public More Wary of NSA Surveillance Than Pundits Claim

Based on a bevy of polls conducted in the wake of revelations that the NSA surveiled millions of ordinary Americans’ private communications, many have prematurely concluded public support or opposition to the government surveillance program (for instance here, here, and here). These polls are insufficient gauges for what Americans actually think for several reasons. First, slight wording differences result in majority support or opposition of the program as described in each particular survey question, as I’ve written about here. Second, the full extent of these government programs is not yet fully known; fully 76 percent of Americans think that we’ll find out the programs are “even bigger and more widespread than we know even now.” Third, most Americans are not even fully aware of the revealed information and its implications—according to a Time poll only 24 percent of Americans say they’ve been closely following the reports of the large-scale government surveillance program called PRISM.

The public’s view of the information leak and revelations about these programs is complicated, as Americans strike a delicate balance between security and privacy. For instance, a Time poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the “government should prosecute government officials and others who leak classified materials that might damage security efforts,” but 54 percent thought that Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the secret program, “did a good thing in informing the American public.” This is likely because only 30 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, think these leaks will weaken U.S. security.

Examining the different poll wordings can still offer value, demonstrating how people’s opinions change when they learn different details of the program. For instance, the public distinguishes between tracking ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing and collecting records of those suspected of terrorist activity. Pew/Washington Post found 56 percent thought it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” However, a CBS/NYTimes poll distinguished between tracking phone records of ordinary Americans and those suspected of terrorist activity. In contrast to Pew, CBS/NYtimes found 58 percent disapprove of “federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans” but 75 percent approve of tracking “phone records of Americans that the government suspects of terrorist activity.” Americans continue to reveal their preference for targeted surveillance when 73 percent told a Rasmussen poll that the “government should be required to show a judge the reason for needing to monitor calls of any specific Americans” and 64 percent said “it is better to collect phone records only of people suspected of having terrorist connections.”

Survey data also suggests Americans distinguish between government tracking phone records and government monitoring the content of online activities. Although polls have found public support for tracking phone records to investigate terrorism, most Americans draw the line at government monitoring the content of Internet activity, such as emails and chats. For instance, Pew found 52 percent think the government should not be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities.” Likewise, when Gallup describing the government program as collecting phone records and Internet communications, 53 percent disapproved.

Surveys that assume away potential misuses and abuses of the data not surprisingly find greater support for government surveillance programs. For instance, A CNN/ORC poll, found 66 percent thought the Obama administration was “right” in gathering and analyzing data on Internet activities “involving people in other countries,” while assuring respondents that the “government reportedly does not target Internet usage by US citizens and if such data is collected it is kept under strict controls.” The validity of this later assertion, however, is actually at the crux of the debate for those critical of the surveillance program. In fact, according to the same CNN poll, nearly two-thirds believe the US government has collected and stored data about their personal phone and Internet activities. Moreover, Rasmussen found that 57 percent thought it was likely that government agencies would use the data collected to “harass political opponents.” The fact that the public’s reported support for the program jumps when survey-wording guarantees the collected data will not be abused suggests that part of the reason the public is wary of the program is the very potential for abuse. The public does not desire privacy for just privacy’s sake, rather the public fears loss of privacy because of the potential for misuse or abuse. Questions that assume away this possibility are entirely unenlightening.

In sum, these data suggest the public is wary of untargeted government surveillance of ordinary Americans, especially without a warrant. They are more tolerant of government tracking phone records; however, many draw the line at government monitoring the content of ordinary Americans’ Internet activity.

A version of this post also appeared on Reason.com

The Tea Party’s Other Half

Emily Ekins and I have an op-ed in today’s Politico pointing out that while the Tea Party is united on economic issues, there is a split virtually right down the middle between traditional social conservatives and those who think government should altogether stay out of the business of “promoting traditional values.” Candidates and representatives hoping to appeal to the Tea Party, we argue, need to focus on a unifying economic agenda that takes into account this strong libertarian undercurrent.

We conducted a survey of 639 attendees at the October 9, 2010 Tea Party Convention in Virginia, one of the larger state Tea Party gatherings of its kind to date. We included the same questions from Gallup and the American National Election Studies that David Boaz and I have used to identify libertarians in our previous studies, “The Libertarian Vote” and “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.”

In our new survey, we found libertarians were 48 percent of Tea Partiers, versus 51 percent who held traditional conservative views. We defined traditional conservatives as agreeing that “the less government the better,” and that “the free market can handle these problems without government being involved,” but also believing that “the government should promote traditional values.”  Tea Party libertarians agreed that less government is better, and prefer free markets, but believe that “the government should not favor any particular set of values.”

These findings help refute the assumption that the Tea Party is just another conservative group, both fiscally and socially. The data should also caution Republicans not to over-interpret potential midterm gains in the House and Senate as a mandate for social as well as fiscal conservatism.

Our survey replicated the methodology of a Politico/Targetpoint survey from a Tea Party rally in April, which also revealed an even split between libertarians and conservatives. At the time, journalist David Weigel criticized this finding because it sampled a tea party rally that featured Ron Paul. No surprise, Weigel reasoned, that the survey “skewed” libertarian because Ron Paul’s supporters “were out in force.”

This Tea Party Convention in Virginia also featured Ron Paul—as well as Lou Dobbs, Rick Santorum and Ken Cuccinelli. With this more wide-ranging speaker line up, it would be harder to argue that the crowd skewed libertarian. If anything, we might have expected the sample to skew conservative.

While ours and Politico’s surveys sampled local tea party events, add to this a new national survey from The Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard on the role of government. It found respondents who support or lean toward the tea party split on the social issues: 42 percent moderate-to-liberal, 57 percent conservative or very conservative. These three data points, taken together, suggest that our findings would likely hold up if we repeated the survey at other tea party events nationwide.

Many still mistake the tea party as one large group, sharing common interests, which our research shows is incorrect. For instance, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson made this mistake, in an widely circulated op-ed earlier this week, asserting that the Tea Party has “the worldview of the American right – and the polling shows conclusively that that’s who the Tea Party is that.” As the chart below shows, libertarian and conservative Tea Partiers agree on economic issues, but libertarians are less concerned about social issues.

Both groups are extremely concerned about the recently passed health care reform, cutting federal government spending, and reducing the size of government. However, Tea Party libertarians are less concerned than conservatives about the moral direction of the country, gay marriage, immigration, job outsourcing, “the Mosque in NYC,” and abortion. While these differences may seem subtle, given the question wording we used, small changes are statistically significant.

It is important to recognize that these groups are not necessarily consistently ideological on all fronts. For example, we shouldn’t expect Tea Party conservatives to reflect all the views of William F. Buckley, Jr., nor Tea Party libertarians to reflect all the views of John Stossel or scholars at Cato. Nevertheless, the two groups were unified on economic issues but were different on social and cultural issues at a statistically significant level.

One finding surprised me. While we know the word “libertarian” remains unfamiliar to many who hold libertarian beliefs, the word may be gaining traction. On surveys, most libertarians identify themselves as independent, moderate or, reluctantly, conservative. However, in our survey we included an option for respondents to self-identify as “libertarian.”

Surprisingly, 35 percent of respondents who hold libertarian views self-identified as such. In previous surveys, we’ve found only 2 to 3 percent self-identify as “libertarian” nationally. To the extent that Tea Partiers talk to their neighbors and friends, perhaps we will begin to see the word “libertarian” catch on. This would certainly be good news for the “libertarian brand,” and a possible trend worth exploring in future research.

Emily and I will be writing up our findings as part of a longer study. And Emily’s more extensive research on the Tea Party, including her widely circulated analysis on Tea Party signs, will be part of her doctoral dissertation for UCLA. In the meantime, here is our survey questionnaire, and some charts showing further break down between libertarians and conservatives. Please eekins [at] cato [dot] org (let us know) if you have additional data questions.

More Surprises from the Kentucky Senate Survey

You may have heard about the new survey in the Kentucky Senate race that shows Rand Paul up by 15 points. The disaggregated data from the survey are almost as surprising as the overall result.

About one-third of likely African-American and Democratic voters support Paul. He attracts solid majorities of young people, of college graduates, and of people who “almost never” attend religious services. Among the one-quarter of voters neutral toward the Tea Party movement, Paul receives 60 percent of the vote. He gets majority support from every region of the state. Paul’s support is the same from voters who make more or less than $50,000 a year. Paul’s weaknesses? People over 65 and women, both coming in around 45 percent.

Pretty amazing stuff, but there’s a caveat (there’s always a caveat).

One time in twenty, a well-done poll will return a misleading result. The 15 percent number may be wrong because of sampling error.

If not, Rand Paul might want to think about whether he really wants to keep his practice open on Mondays considering all that stuff he will be doing in DC. But maybe he’s not looking to make a career in the capital.

Don’t Give Up on the American People…at Least not Yet

Gloominess and despair are not uncommon traits among supporters of limited government – and with good reason. Government has grown rapidly in recent years and it is expected to get much bigger in the future. To make matters worse, it seems that the deck is stacked against reforms to restrain government. One problem is that 47 percent of Americans are exempt from paying income taxes, which presumably means they no longer have any incentive to resist big government. Mark Steyn recently wrote a very depressing column for National Review Online about this phenomenon, noting that, “By 2012, America could be holding the first federal election in which a majority of the population will be able to vote themselves more government lollipops paid for by the ever shrinking minority of the population still dumb enough to be net contributors to the federal treasury.” Walter Williams, meanwhile, has a new column speculating on whether this cripples the battle for freedom:

According to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research organization, nearly half of U.S. households will pay no federal income taxes for 2009…because their incomes are too low or they have higher income but credits, deductions and exemptions that relieve them of tax liability. This lack of income tax liability stands in stark contrast to the top 10 percent of earners, those households earning an average of $366,400 in 2006, who paid about 73 percent of federal income taxes. …Let’s not dwell on the fairness of such an arrangement for financing the activities of the federal government. Instead, let’s ask what kind of incentives and results such an arrangement produces and ask ourselves whether these results are good for our country. …Having 121 million Americans completely outside the federal income tax system, it’s like throwing chum to political sharks. These Americans become a natural spending constituency for big-spending politicians. After all, if you have no income tax liability, how much do you care about deficits, how much Congress spends and the level of taxation?

Steyn and Williams are right to worry, but the situation is not as grim as it seems for the simple reason that a good portion of the American people know the difference between right and wrong. Consider some of the recent polling data from Rasmussen, which found that “Sixty-six percent (66%) believe that America is overtaxed. Only 25% disagree. Lower income voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is overtaxed” and “75% of voters nationwide say the average American should pay no more than 20% of their income in taxes.” These numbers contradict the hypothesis that 47 percent of Americans (those that don’t pay income tax) are automatic supporters of class-warfare policy.

So why are the supposed free-riders not signing on to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda? There are probably several reasons, including the fact that many Americans believe in upward mobility, so even if their incomes currently are too low to pay income tax, they aspire to earn more in the future and don’t want higher tax rates on the rich to serve as a barrier. I’m not a polling expert, but I also suspect there’s a moral component to these numbers. There’s no way to prove this assertion, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of hard-working Americans with modest incomes would never even contemplate breaking into a rich neighbor’s house and stealing the family jewelry. So it is perfectly logical that they wouldn’t support using the IRS as a middleman to do the same thing.

A few final tax observations:

The hostility to taxation also represents opposition to big government (at least in theory). Rasumssen also recently found that, “Just 23% of U.S. voters say they prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes over one with fewer services and lower taxes. …Two-thirds (66%) of voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes.”

There is a giant divide between the political elite and ordinary Americans. Rasmussen’s polling revealed that, “Eighty-one percent (81%) of Mainstream American voters believe the nation is overtaxed, while 74% of those in the Political Class disagree.”

Voters do not want a value-added tax or any other form of national sales tax. They are not against the idea as a theoretical concept, but they wisely recognize the politicians are greedy and untrustworthy. Rasumussen found that “just 26% of all voters think that it is even somewhat likely the government would cut income taxes after implementing a sales tax. Sixty-six percent (66%) believe it’s unlikely to happen.”

Fiscal restraint is a necessary precondition for any pro-growth tax reform. If given a choice between a flat tax, national sales tax, value-added tax, or the current system, many Americans want reform, but it is very difficult to have a good tax system if the burden of government spending is rising. Likewise, it would be very easy to have a good tax system if we had a federal government that was limited to the duties outlined in Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Republicans should never acquiesce to higher taxes. All these good numbers and optimistic findings are dependent on voters facing a clear choice between higher taxes and bigger government vs lower taxes and limited government. If Republicans inside the beltway get seduced into a “budget summit” where taxes are “on the table,” that creates a very unhealthy dynamic where voters instinctively try to protect themselves by supporting taxes on somebody else – and the so-called rich are the easiest target.

Last but not least, I can’t resist pointing out that I am part of a debate for U.S. News & World Report on the flat tax vs. the current system. For those of you who have an opinion on this matter, don’t hesitate to cast a vote.

Libertarians, Independents, and Tea Parties

David Kirby and I have an op-ed in today’s Politico on libertarians as the “leading edge” of the independent vote:

Who are these centrist, independent-minded voters who swung the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts to Republican candidates and are likely to be crucial in races this fall?…

Libertarians seem to be a leading indicator of this trend in centrist, independent-minded voters, based on an analysis of many years of polling data. We estimate that libertarians compose from 14 percent to 23 percent of voters nationally. They are among the few real swing voters in U.S. politics.

We note that libertarian voters started to swing against the Republicans in 2004, before most Republicans did. Then independents swung hard to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. By 2008, though, libertarian voters had apparently recoiled against the prospect of an Obama-Pelosi-Reid government at a time of financial crisis. By November 2009 and January 2010, a majority of independents had followed the libertarians in turning against the Democrats’ big-government agenda. We go on to say:

So, if many of these centrist, independent voters are indeed libertarians, why aren’t libertarians better recognized?

First, the word “libertarian” is still unfamiliar — even to many who hold “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” views. Pollsters rarely use it….

Second, libertarian voters have traditionally been less likely to organize.

In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics — particularly as campaigns move online. Ron Paul’s campaign demonstrated that libertarians can organize and raise large sums of money on the Internet.

Meanwhile, tea party protests showed that libertarian-inspired anger can boil over into spontaneous, nationwide rallies. On Sept. 12, 2009, more than 100,000 people marched on Washington to protest federal spending and the growth of government — many carrying nerdy, libertarian-inspired signs such as “I Am John Galt,” referring to the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Libertarians are emerging as a force within U.S. politics. While political leaders such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and media stars like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are icons to a “conservative base,” it is not yet clear what political leaders might represent these libertarian voters.

But with candidates working to capitalize on voter angst in the 2010 midterms, there are sure to be many politicians angling to lead this libertarian vote.

Meanwhile, a new Politico/TargetPoint poll of people who attended the April 15 Tea Party in Washington found “two camps” there: “one that’s libertarian-minded and largely indifferent to hot-button values issues and another that’s culturally conservative and equally concerned about social and fiscal issues.” They also found a difference in intensity: “Asked to rate their level of anger about 22 issues on a scale of one (not angry at all) to five (extremely angry), the issue that drew the most anger: the growing national debt. The least: courts granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Twenty-four percent said they’re ‘not at all’ upset about gay marriage.”

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found “Tea Party supporters” more conservative than Americans in general on gay marriage. We may be seeing a difference between people who say they like the Tea Parties and those who actually turn out for Tea Party rallies, or possibly Tea Partiers in the Washington area are more socially liberal than they are in other regions.

In particular, the Politico/TargetPoint poll used some of the same questions, drawn from the Gallup Poll and other surveys, that Kirby and I have used to identify libertarians in our “libertarian vote” studies. Here’s the analysis from TargetPoint (emphases added):

IDEOLOGY

The Tea Party is, unsurprisingly, for small-government and cuts to taxes and spending; but there is a clear split when it comes to government promotion of moral values.

  • Overwhelming majorities of 88% and 81% say government is trying to do too many things best left to individuals and businesses, and that government should cut taxes and spending, respectively. But in terms of values, Tea Party attendees are split right down the middle. A slim majority of 51% say “Government should not promote any particular set of values”, versus 46% that say “Government should promote traditional family values in our society.”
  • We can compare these to Gallup data collected in September of 2009: nationally, 57% said government was doing too much (among Republicans it was 80%), while 53% said government should promote traditional values (among Republicans it was 67%). So the Tea Party is actually more conservative than national Republicans when it comes to the size and role of government, but less conservative than national Republicans in terms of government promotion of traditional values.
  • Indeed, combining the responses to some of these questions is a revealing ideological exercise: 43% of attendees said government is doing too much AND that government should promote traditional values, a distinctly conservative view; 42% said government is doing too much AND that government should NOT promote any particular set of values, an ideological view used by the Cato Institute as an indicator of libertarianism (currently 23% of all Americans fit into this category).
  • This split between a libertarian Tea Party and a socially conservative Tea Party is reinforced when we consider the combination of all three ideological questions we asked, questions on the size and role of government, the role of traditional values, and the dynamic between taxes and spending. If we count the number of times a respondent gave the “conservative” answer (government should do less, it should promote traditional values, and cut taxes and spending), 40% of Tea Party attendees gave the conservative answer all three times, and 42% gave the conservative answer only two times. Those that gave only two conservative responses were most likely to defect on the role of traditional values.

Anticipating criticisms, let me note that no survey is definitive, and few survey questions are definitive. It’s possible that some respondents would say “government should do more to solve our country’s problems” meaning that it should be cutting waste and reducing the national debt. And some people might understand “government should promote traditional values” to mean traditional values like self-reliance, thrift, and standing on your own too feet. But overall, I think these questions help us to separate broadly libertarian responses from conservatives and (social-democratic) liberals. And this poll suggests that Tea Partiers are not just conservative Republicans. At least some of them are more libertarian. Politicians trying to appeal to them should keep that in mind.

The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama

Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts seems to reflect some of the trends David Kirby and I note in our new study, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” released today. We wrote, “Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters. If libertarians continue to lead the independents away from Obama, Democrats will lose 2010 midterm elections they would otherwise win.” That seems to have happened in Virginia, New Jersey, and now Massachusetts. Young voters, whom we examine in the study, also seem to have moved sharply in Massachusetts from heavy support for Obama in 2008 to slightly less strong support for Brown this week.

Using our strict screen based on American National Election Studies data, we find that 14 percent of voters were libertarian in 2008. Other analysts using broader criteria find larger numbers. Gallup calculates the distribution of ideology every year and found that libertarians made up 23 percent of respondents in their 2009 survey. Our analysis of data from a 2007 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that people with libertarian views were 26 percent of respondents. And a Zogby poll found that 59 percent of Americans would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” while 44 percent would accept the description “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian.”

Libertarian voters swung away from Bush and the GOP in 2004 and 2006, but in 2008 they swung back, voting for McCain by 71 to 27 percent, presumably because the prospect of a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress in the midst of a financial crisis was frightening to small-government voters. Also, while many libertarian intellectuals had a real antipathy to McCain, the typical libertarian voter saw McCain as an independent, straight-talking maverick who was a strong opponent of earmarks and pork-barrel spending and never talked about social issues.

One encouraging point in the study: libertarians may be becoming more organized. In our 2006 study we wrote, “Social conservatives have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family… . Liberals have unions… . Libertarians have think tanks.” In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics, particularly as campaigns move online. Note the Ron Paul campaign and the heavy libertarian involvement in the widespread and decentralized “Tea Party” movement.

The new study also includes new data on young libertarian voters, Ron Paul voters, libertarians and abortion, “secular centrist” voters, and how libertarians voted for Congress in the past five elections.

Growing Support for Smaller Government

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that respondents favor “smaller government with fewer services” over “larger government with more services” by 58 to 38 percent. Reporter Dan Balz notes:

The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country’s problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.

I’ve noted previously that

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government – “more services” – but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points.

In fact, Rasmussen has continued to ask just that question, and found a month ago that voters preferred “smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes” by a margin of 66 to 22 percent. That’s a larger margin for the alternative wording than I had previously estimated. I know some people are skeptical of Rasmussen’s polling. (A Republican consulting firm recently found results very similar to the Rasmussen poll.) So I invite Gallup, Harris, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other pollsters to ask this more balanced question and see what results they get.